Sitting All Day? Here Are 5 Easy Desk Stretches

A pilates instructor shares helpful stretches for those of us hunching over our devices…

If you’re hunched over your devices while cooped up at home, chances are you might feel some aches and pains in new places. Luckily, New York City-based pilates instructor Kate Garfield is here to help. For our Wake-Up Call newsletter, she explains what all this sitting and screentime is doing to our bodies — and shares tips for stretching at home.

When we’re more sedentary in our lifestyles and we’re having more time with our screens, the first thing that starts to happen is we start to hunch our head forward.

If we’re just thinking about our head, neck and chest area — most people have some tightness in the back of their neck and shoulder region. When we’re sitting in front of our screens, our head is really heavy. It weighs 10–12 pounds. When the neck is bent forward, it adds weight to the cervical spine. This causes the muscles at the back of your neck to shorten and tighten, and makes it harder to sit up tall, or create healthy alignment for your spine.

What goes on in our pelvis affects what goes on in our neck and shoulders. Ideally when we sit, we sit on our sitz bones, supporting our spine’s natural curvatures. But when we sit for extended periods of time, most of us — myself included — tend to try and get comfortable. We hunch and round our lowback, causing the muscles in our hips, hamstrings, and hip flexors, to shorten and tighten. Later, when we try to stand up, it’s harder to align our spine effectively.

Given the amount of screen time that everyone is getting, most of us are also hunching and rounding through our chest — so our shoulders, which ideally are just kind of open, gentle, wide, are rounding forward toward each other. That creates some tightness in our pecs. And most of us are shortening the back of our neck and looking forward, and sitting behind our Sitz bones. So we’re rounding into our low back, shortening our hamstrings and giving ourselves back pain that we’ll feel later, because we’ve created a question mark shape with our spines.

So here’s what to do:

First, take an inventory of how your body feels.

If you’re sitting in a chair, you should sit up on your sitz bones, which are right at the bottom of your pelvis. It’s like if you sit on my lap and I’m like, “Ow, you have a bony butt” — it’s those bottom rockers. So, the first thing to do is to find good posture and to see how your body is feeling. Sit up on top of those bones. And then, just breathe. As you’re breathing, notice if there’s movement in your body. Notice if your rib cage, or your belly, moves.

Stretch your arms overhead, grab your wrists, and gently pull.

This is my favorite stretch to do, especially if I’m sitting for a long time. Just take your arms up overhead and grab your right wrist with your left hand. Then lift your shoulders and take a big side bend to the left, so you’re gently pulling your right wrist, kind of arching your ribs open. Stay there for a moment and breathe. Think of stretching out all of the muscles in between your ribs (these are intercostals!)

Maybe stay there for four or five breaths, and then come up tall and do the same thing over to the other side.

So you switch your grip, lift your collar bones, and then side bend. You’re holding your left wrist, bending to the right. You can pull on your wrist to deepen it and tuck your pelvis a little bit, so you may feel more stretched all the way down to your side, either for four or five breaths and then come up all the way.

Give your wrists, fingers and forearms a bit of love.

One of my other favorite screen time stretches (even if you’re not on a computer screen, most of us are on our phones): Interlace your fingers and take the heels of your hands away from you (palms facing away). Now you’re stretching out your forearms, you’re stretching out your palms, and it could feel really good to drop your head and round your upper back forward. You can even keep that interlace and take the whole shape up to the sky.

Gently twist in a seated position.

The last one that I really, really love to do if I’m sitting for a long time is to find a gentle twist while seated. Stay on your sitz bones and put your left hand on your right knee and then grab onto the back of your chair with your right hand — and just gently twist, sitting up really tall and look over your back shoulder. Stay there for three or four breaths.

Repeat that on the other side with the right hand to the left side, and just notice what you can see. It might be easier to twist one way than the other. That’s kind of normal. No one’s symmetrical. Just breathe as you gently pull with your hand and press with your bottom hand.

Give your hips a stretch.

Let’s really focus on our hips for a moment — it’s a figure four stretch. You can do that lying on the ground. Or if you don’t have much time, you can do it sitting in a chair.

Take your left ankle over your right knee, resting it on your thigh, flex your left foot. Hang out there for a moment. You want to try and weight your hips evenly so that you’re not falling over to one side. Think about your sitz bones, and notice if they’re tucked under you — or are you able to sit up on them? You can always lean forward if that feels good.

Repeat that on the other side. By doing that, you’re gently stretching your piriformis, your glutes, sciatic nerve, and everything on the outside of your hip. Repeat that on the other side. You can hang out, maybe five to 10 breaths on each side.

I do that stretch every single day, whether it’s sitting on a chair or it’s taking a break, and laying down on a mat.

Bonus: Go for a walk.

Once an hour, if you can, just get out of your chair and take a short walk. Moving is going to help restore proper alignment.

Follow Kate Garfield on Instagram. Information about her Zoom mat classes can be found there, as well. You can also check out her weekly podcast Pilates With Kate for mini sessions.

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